After Jos’ comprehensive guide to the lounge suit last week, many readers pointed out that they loved to dress down their suit by utilising other key pieces such as knitwear, t-shirts and the like. With this in mind, Jos and I set out to conquer the whole concept and method of dressing down a suit. Just because suits are traditionally classed as formal wear, it doesn’t mean they have to be pigeon-holed into just that type of look. There are many ways to relax the suit, and that is what we are going to be exploring in detail over the next two days.
In this two part guide, we will be concentrating on the two major ways in which you can create a more relaxed aesthetic whilst wearing a suit. I shall be focussing on simply altering your complimenting pieces when utilising a full suit, and tomorrow Jos will be detailing how to wear your suit pieces as separates in order to create an entirely new look.
How To Dress Down a Suit
The ideal that I am aiming for here is to not lose all the formality that you would by pairing your blazer with a pair of jeans, but to simply create a much more relaxed approach to office wear. Some of you might be able to get away with the looks showcased in your everyday job, whilst others may only be allowed to integrate certain pieces during ‘casual Friday’ or events you are invited to throughout the year. Either way, I hope to provide some alternatives to the monotony of the shirt and tie combination.
So, as we are fast approaching autumn/winter, we will start with knitwear. By subbing in knitwear instead of your shirt and tie – or layering over the top if you want to maintain the formality – you change the whole look of the suit. It gives it a completely different identity, with extra texture coming into play through the knit itself. This often leads to some amazing textured layers – marrying materials such as cotton, wool, tweed and flannel together – giving your whole outfit depth.
When utilising knitwear with a suit, the obvious choice is to opt for a fine gauge knit. This makes sense because your suit jacket should fit you well (if you have taken on any of our advice over the years) and so you may not have room for a thick knit jumper or roll neck underneath. Lightweight merino wool knitwear is perfect for those of you wishing to maintain this slim to skinny silhouette, with there being a plethora of options available to you in terms of neck line and knitwear styles – the roll neck being the on-trend choice for 2011.
However, for those of you who like to keep your suits slim to straight fitting, you could simply wear a thick knit jumper or roll neck under your suit with a thin (or no) under-layer. This would keep you warm and comfortable in any weather condition, and you can simply lose the blazer once you get into the office. Thick knits automatically create a cozy and relaxed aesthetic by their very nature.
You will of noticed that the look book above has utilised very neutral coloured knitwear with the suits. If you are wearing knitwear to work, then you should look to keep it neutral and erring on the side of formal. However, if you want to dress a suit down for an event or the weekend, then why not try a bold coloured knit in warm tones such as red, purple or orange? It will give your suit the shot of life and vibrancy it needs, whilst also showing a much more care-free and playful side.
Patterned knitwear is the other alternative if you want to show some personality; with Fair Isle, Nordic and Navajo taking centre stage this year within menswear, there is sure to be the perfect jumper or cardigan you can integrate in order to make you stand out.
Sticking With The Shirt
So what happens if you want (or have) to stick with the shirt? Well there are easy ways to dress down the look should you need to – say for after work drinks or a relaxed business dinner/lunch.
You are limited in your options as the shirt and suit combination is always going to look smart; it is work wear and you can’t hide from the fact that they are traditionally formal items. However, just a few key touches will change the overall feel:
- Lose the tie. A shirt and tie is ‘stuffy’, whilst a simple shirt paired with a suit is somewhat relaxed and Mediterranean chic.
- Your top button is personal preference. There is something quirky about buttoning up your shirt to the top with no tie on. This works especially well with less formal patterns such as check, plaid or gingham shirts. Opening up one or two buttons really does show you are ‘off duty’ however.
- Lose the work accessories. You don’t need your belt because your trousers fit you perfectly, right? RIGHT? So lose the belt, and whilst you are at it, lose the pocket square as well. If you must keep it then make sure you stuff it in and don’t try and be too cute with it. Doing both of these things strips the suit back to basics and again has that Italian flair associated with it.
- Add your own accessories. We may of lost the work associated extras, but other casual accessories are fair game. A pair of sunglasses provides effortless cool, whilst a coloured chunky scarf or silk patterned neckerchief gives your look a punch.
- Give the hems a couple of folds. In the look book below, one of the men has given his suit trouser hems a fold or two [top right] in the same way you would with your chinos. This not only gives off a much more casual impression, but when paired with bold coloured socks – or no socks – it ticks all the right boxes in terms of looking sharp and stylish, whilst showing flair and a playful side.
Keep It Casual
By keeping it casual, I mean we literally just change your style of shirt for something much more relaxed. There are a variety of ways to do this, such as:
- Switch the material. Instead of your starched cotton work shirt, think jersey, denim, chambray and other softer/relaxed materials. These types of shirt are all associated with casual wear, meaning it will dress down your suit in an instant.
- Inject some colour. Your work shirts will generally be very neutral and/or plain. Give your suit the shot of life it needs by integrating bold red, green, yellow, orange or purple coloured shirts. When you combine this burst of colour with a more relaxed shirt material and your top button undone, your suit suddenly becomes the very essence of smart-casual.
- Vary the pattern. There are patterns which are a lot more casual in appearance compared to plain or striped formal shirts. Your check shirts you wear at the weekend can be worn under a suit to bring the formality down a notch, whilst gingham is another on trend print that still looks smart, but doesn’t have as many work wear connotations yet. Other prints to consider would be floral, hibiscus, geo-metric or even polka dots.
- Switch the style. You don’t have to wear a typical ‘shirt’, you could choose to utilise a smart polo shirt instead. A polo shirt is the definition of smart-casual; it has a collar, but the material and cut screams casual. If you do stick with a shirt, then Grandad collars or half button pull over versions are other ways to dress down your suit whilst retaining the overall structure of formal wear.
This is one of the easiest ways you will ever dress down your suit. A t-shirt is true casual wear and will never be associated with the boardroom. Of course, many of you will have already created outfits using this method before – it is so effortless to wear but always produces a really sharp smart-casual look that is perfect for events, nights out, that engagement party you have been invited to, etc. etc.
This type of dressing is perfect for separating yourself from the crowd, particularly on a night out or a date. Here are a few tips to bear in mind:
- Choose colours wisely. A black suit is still traditionally associated with work or formal events. If you are going to wear a black suit then think about going really casual with your tee. Graphic t-shirts work very well in this instance, whilst other warm colours like burgundy look amazing against a dark backdrop and will inject some life – showing you are truly ready for the weekend.
- Basic T-shirts are essential. Having a collection of great fitting basic t-shirts in neutral colours is the backbone to any successful wardrobe. They should be bright and clean – once they have lost their vibrancy or discoloured, keep them for layering in autumn/winter. A plain white v-neck or crew neck looks amazing with brown, navy, grey or black suits, making it a ‘go-to’ option to have in your wardrobe. Pair with a bold coloured/patterned pocket square to finish off this look.
- Contrasting Colours. If you want to come away from basic black, white or grey neutral tees then look to contrast the colour of your t-shirt to your suit colour. Read up on Matt’s introduction to colour article and pick colours that compliment or contrast against each other.
- Graphic T-Shirts. Graphic t-shirts work just as well with blazers and suits but you have to make sure they are age-appropriate. Without opening a can of worms, you will know if a particular print or style will work for your age and particular look. For example, I wouldn’t recommend most slogan t-shirts, naked girl prints or Mickey Mouse t-shirts (I am browsing Topman right now!) to men aged over 30. Hell, I wouldn’t even wear one at 28. However, there are more subtle and even classy graphic t-shirts available on the very same site. I am looking at the A.D. Tees, city/landscape type prints and patterns such as Navajo and Fair Isle.
- Accessorise. As you are rocking a casual t-shirt with your suit, you can begin to bring in more casual accessories. Pocket squares work well for an injection of colour and pattern, just remember that they often look better casually pushed into the pocket rather than neatly folded. Sunglasses again add effortless cool, whilst masculine and chunky jewellery can really finish off a look and add an edge. In terms of belts, you can opt for more casual styles in order to really reinforce the aesthetic of the outfit – think plaited leather versions and rope belts – or lose it altogether.
Change Your Footwear
Your footwear can make or break any outfit, and in terms of work or formal attire, you will often see most men in a neutral coloured Derby or Oxford shoe. This is because these type of shoes ‘look’ smart – they are associated with those types of environments and so instantly make your suit take on that appearance as well. However, if you want to dress down a suit quickly and easily, changing your footwear is the key.
If you were to sub out your Derby shoes for a pair of trainers, you instantly bring the suited and booted look down a notch. It is unavoidable as the trainer is such a casual piece, and this has been embedded in our brains sub-consciously.
It is not just the trainer that can be utilised with a suit however. These days I have seen editorials and look books pairing suits with everything from military and hiking boots to espadrilles and sandals – most importantly, they still work. You can pick any style or colour of footwear that you like, but you need to take your basic colour coordinating principles into account.
You also need to be aware of just how casual the footwear you are wearing is. If you are using a tan brogue boot, loafer or brown leather hiking boot, you can easily wear these with a navy suit and a shirt. All 3 described retain an essence of smart, allowing you to pair them with traditional formal pieces without them looking out of place.
When you are trying to integrate trainers, espadrilles and the like, you should look to reinforce this casual approach by incorporating some of the other tips we have mentioned today. Try a patterned or coloured shirt with no collar; sub in a polo shirt or graphic tee; accessorise with sunglasses, jewellery and bold sock colours. Just make sure you tie the top and bottom halves together, else you risk looking ‘try hard’ or like you don’t know what you are doing. Even the image below showing a full suit with trainers has a bold patterned visible trim running along both the suit and shirt, which tones down the formal aspect of both items:
I hope this article gave you all some ideas about how you can dress down your traditional two piece suit just by altering the complimenting pieces. Although the sections have been segmented in order to explain each concept in more detail, feel free to mix and match ideas to your personal preference. For example, you might want to use a plain t-shirt, a piece of knitwear layered over the top AND then sub in trainers as well – the choice is yours and you should experiment to find what works for you.
For those of you who want to incorporate some of the ideas above into your everyday work wear, you need to be aware of your dress code and make sure that you still retain an essence of professionalism. However, once your working day finishes and you are off out for drinks, a date or any other after hours misadventures, you should now be able to change your whole look in an instant.
Let us know in the comments what your favourite way to dress down a suit is, and make sure you check out Jos’ guide tomorrow which goes into detail about utilising your suits as separates in order to create a whole host of new casual looks.